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Joan of Arc, Warrior for France

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Sep 1, 2020, 11:50 AM EDT (Updated)

All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.

Joan of Arc or Jeanne d’Arc, La Pucelle d’Orléans is arguably the most well-known of the warrior women of the past. She's been the subject of films and books, and you’ve likely seen her history reimagined many times. There are myths about her, like the one where she’s the half-sister of the French king or that she survived being burned. She’s been played on the big screen by Ingrid Bergman, Milla Jovovich, and Leelee Sobieski. She’s been written about by Christine de Pizan in the 15th century and George Bernard Shaw in the 20th. There have been operas, video games, and so much more, but sometimes the real woman gets lost in what we project on her. Here is an introduction to the REAL Maid of Orléans.

Joan of Arc is known for fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, and she was canonized as a Catholic saint, but her life started out quietly. Joan was born as a peasant in Domrémy in 1412 CE in the northeast portion of France. As a young teenager, she told everyone that she was having visions wherein the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine were telling her that she should support Charles VII as the king of France and help him take back the country from the English. Charles was pretty happy about this and decided to make Joan a rallying point for his troops. It was a good PR move. Women didn’t fight as a general rule, but she was a young girl with visions from God, so having her lead the army was a big deal.

The Hundred Years’ War had been raging since 1337 around the French throne. It wasn’t going on all the time, but there was enough fighting in France to have devastated the common people. Between that and the plague that hit in the last century, it wasn’t a great situation. The current king Charles VI was having mental issues and couldn’t rule effectively. When the Duke of Orléans was assassinated in 1407, his son Charles took over for him, with his father-in-law acting as a guide for him. Henry V of England took advantage of the situation and won at the battle of Agincourt, taking over a big chunk of northern France. The French Dauphin was 14 in 1418, and was dealing with military and political disasters all over the place. When the French queen Isabeau gave the succession of the French throne to Henry V, and then both the French and English kings died, it was a total mess.

Joan’s visions started when she was 13-year-old out in her garden. Three years later, she was taken to the town of Vancouleurs, picked up an armed escort and headed to the French court at Chinon. She was finally able to meet Charles VII in 1429 when she was 17. She got his permission to travel with the French army and dress in armor. (See every painting of her ever.) She was outfitted with horses and weapons. She inspired the army with her talk of God and the visions of destiny. Did Charles just trust her? Nope. She was put to many tests to determine her purity and that she wasn’t lying.

Whether or not Charles believed her was not the issue. It was that everyone else did. The big test was whether she would be able to inspire the army to lift the siege of Orléans, which she did. It’s been debated for centuries whether Joan actually fought with her sword, and she claimed that she never killed, but her inspiration at the head of the army won the day. She also took an arrow at the top of her shoulder, then went back in to get the troops going. She promised a sign, and that was the sign the French king was waiting for.

Joan followed the army, joining them as they recaptured bridges and lands. She gave the Duke of Alençon advice on strategy, which he took. She was injured more than once. There were a number of military successes, and a truce with England was reached.

A bored Joan decided to start harassing a dissident group of Catholics called the Hussites who had broken with the church while the truce was in effect. You see, Joan thought anyone disagreeing with the church was a heretic. When the truce with England was broken, Joan headed back to the army. She as captured in 1430 and imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle. She tried to escape a number of times, and the French army tried to rescue her. The king even threatened the women of England if she didn’t come back, but Joan was put on trial for heresy. 

Bishop Cauchon who was in the pay of the English Crown tried Joan. It wasn’t exactly a fair trial. She didn’t get a legal advisor, and no one was there to represent French interests. Joan, however, impressed the court by avoiding blasphemous answers to religious questions with wit and intelligence, something they didn’t expect from a woman and a peasant. However, Joan was illiterate and the document she signed after the trial spoke of the possibility of execution. She wasn’t clear on that and the documents were reportedly falsified later. 

One of the big issues in her crime outside of heresy was that she was “cross-dressing.” Oh, the horror. In fact, that was the crime for which she was sentenced to death. According to reports, Joan had another reason for preferring male military clothing beyond what it did for her fighting. It was also a protection against sexual assault. Joan is said to have had an issue with changing into a dress for the trial and reported that an English lord tried to rape her in prison. After that, she started dressing as a man again. Though much of this is disputed, it’s understandable. She did have supporters in the trial, but she was condemned to death in 1431. 

Joan of Arc was burned to death on May 30, 1431. They tied her to a stake in Vieux-Marché in Rouen. She was said to have asked a crucifix to be held up for her, and an English soldier gave her a cross that she held in her dress. They burned her body three times in total so no one could claim that she escaped or use her body parts as relics to rally the French army. The war continued for another 22 years, but the advice she had given the Duke is said to have influenced French military strategy, eventually leading to victory.

Years later, Pope Callixtus III retried Joan and the sentence was nullified. Small comfort to the young woman who was burned to death. Joan was declared innocent on July 7, 1456. She was beatified in 1909 and later became a Roman Catholic saint. 

Over the years, people have tried to explain Joan’s visions in modern terms, suggesting migraines, epilepsy, and even schizophrenia, though there has been no consensus. There is even a theory that they came from tuberculosis. Then there were all the other theories about her. There was speculation that Joan was the illegitimate daughter of Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Duke Louis of Orléans, which would have made her the king’s half-sister. There were a number of people who claimed to be Joan of Arc years after her execution, including the most famous, Claude des Armoises. Anthropologist Margaret Murray claimed in 1921 that Joan was a witch in the sense of being part of an old pagan cult of pre-Christian Europe. People have even claimed that some of her bones survive, though it’s unlikely if reports of her execution are to be believed. 

Though some of Joan’s beliefs are problematic today, she was a unique young woman when she lived. She defied the men around her and got herself to the French king, got him to believe in her visions, led armies, battled injuries, tried multiple times to escape her captors and acted with aplomb and with great intelligence at her trial, at odds with her humble upbringing. Though the alternate theories and fantasy versions of Joan of Arc’s tale are fascinating and fun to learn about, in the end, her real life is the most interesting story of all. 

Who is your favorite warrior woman in history? Let us know in the comments or tweet us @SYFYFangrrls

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